Library On/Library Off

Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

Leighton Christiansen – Profiles in Awesome

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What do digital poetry and truck driving have in common? How about union organizing and digital preservation? All are things my friend Leighton Christiansen could tell you a lot about. Leighton is one of my colleagues at GSLIS, a skilled tech-tamer, and the story of his path to library-land seems to span nearly the million miles he logged as a trucker. AND his initials are LC…coincidence? You decide.

Nicole Forsythe: Tell me about your background and current work.


The Other LC

Leighton Christiansen: I grew up in Iowa, graduating from Betttendorf High in 1986, and starting my BA in English at the University of Iowa that Fall. I graduated with a BA English major and Informatics minor in May 2009. In the 23 years in between, I did some carpentry, delivered pizza and newspapers, drove a school bus, wrote radical journalism, learned newspaper and magazine layout, worked as a household goods mover, drove a truck, worked in campus IT at Iowa, organized and participated in hundreds of rallies and pickets, and was a member of three labor unions: the Chicago Truck Drivers’ Union, The National Writers’ Union, and the Teamsters. I started my MLIS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2009. I hold a Graduate Assistantship in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS’) Instructional Technology and Design area, working to keep our 40 to 50 distance LIS classes on the air every day. And after serving as the GSLIS steward for the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and on the GEO strike committee in November, I have been recently elected as a GEO Officer-at-Large.

NF: How did you get from being a truck driver, carpenter, et al, to library school?

In 2002, after truck driving for 9 years, I realized that was not going to be a good long-term career choice. I moved back to Iowa with the idea of picking up my unfinished BA. I had always been a big library user and had thought about being a librarian at various times. I was not actually able to restart my education until 2006. I took 20 asynchronous distance-education hours at Kirkwood Community College in 2006 & 2007, often doing my homework in the cab, or sleep, of the truck while I was waiting to be loaded or unloaded. I took a poetry survey class with Marianne Taylor. Marianne introduced us to digital poetry, especially the work at I had finally, after starting my English major 20 years earlier, found the kind of poetry I was most interested in.

While studying digital poetry and coming across dead links and obsolete players and software, I began to worry about who and how these poems and art objects were being preserved for future study. I graduated with my AA in Spring 2007, knowing that when I started at Iowa in the fall, I was going to study new media poetry and go on to library school, with the goal of preserving digital poetry. I continued to drive truck full time through the end of my junior year, when I got a job in campus IT. And after three attempts to retire from truck driving, I was finally successful. 

Fortunately, I was able to pair my course work with my IT job. I picked up an Informatics minor at Iowa, because I needed to learn a whole new technology. At Iowa I was part of the SITA (Student Instructional Technology Assistants) program. Our job was to help instructors introduce new technologies into their teaching. This included web site publishing, podcasting, blogging, building wikis, and integrating and exploring virtual worlds, just to name a few. I got to work with faculty one on one or in small groups, and was often asked to come into classrooms to introduce the new technology to the students. The final three years of my 23-year-BA odyssey were fabulous, and I think made me attractive to the LIS schools I applied to, including UW Seattle, UNC Chapel-Hill, and UIUC.

NF: What do you want to be when you grow up and how do you see an MLIS getting you there?

LC: My current area of study at GSLIS is a Masters in Data Curation, with my intention to stay and pursue a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Digital Preservation. Once I get out of school and back to the work world (and I am in no hurry), I see myself working at a digital archive or at a museum that preserves new media poetry and cyber-fiction. Hopefully, the day job will allow me to continue my own content creation that I began while at Iowa. The MLIS and CAS are key to attaining the technical skills and theoretical background I need to become a serious humanities preservationist. I have a lot of technology to learn, and many specialized data standards to learn. I think the MLIS is the best way for me to start exploring and attaining the many new skills I will need.

NF: You do a lot of work with helping online education at GSLIS go smoothly. What are some of the benefits and limitations of online ed, as far as you can see?

LC: I am a huge fan distance and online education. Over my undergrad career I attended three different community colleges and universities. More than half my AA credits at Kirkwood were from distance ed classes. In the early 1990s, these classes where synchronous distributed courses, with an instructor and camera at one site, and with students at up to seven remote sites, with cameras and mics of their own. The asynchronous credits I took in 2006 and 2007 were Internet-based courses, using the Blackboard course management tool. Online ed meant I was able to complete my AA while still working a very irregular truck-driving schedule.

My current work at GSLIS ITD is in support of other students who are working full time in other cities, in other states, on other continents. The difference for GSLIS LEEP (the distance education scheduling option) classes is that we use Elluminate software, which creates virtual synchronous classrooms, allowing students to interact with instructors and other students without having to be in the same physical location. 

The main benefits of distance ed are the freedom and access students have. Students can learn from great instructors, and collaborate with excellent students, based in universities and colleges all over the world. Students with crazy schedules and family lives, or other restrictions, can gain life-changing education. For students, I don’t really see a downside.

Some are concerned that maybe that there is not enough interaction with instructors or students. Students do need to be pro-active about contacting instructors and staying on track. But I can tell you, in the GSLIS LEEP program, which requires students in the program to spend a few days each year on campus, that students can create a tight group identity. GSLIS LEEP students tend to use our course management chat and discussion tools more than on-campus students. GSLIS LEEP students also graduate at the same rate as our on-campus students. 

The limitations on on-line ed come mostly from the institutional side. Institutions with the attitude that Internet-based classes will just bring in the money, and they don’t have to do anything, will soon find the program will fail from lack of interest. Colleges and universities have to understand that distance students have different needs and you have to dedicate the resources these students need. Having been on both sides of distance ed now, I am excited to be registered for the course E-learning at GSLIS in Fall 2010. It will add some depth to conclusions I have drawn from my experiences.

NF: What are some of the issues in LIS right now that you’re most passionate about? If you could proffer advice to the field on these issues, what would it be?

LC: The biggest issue in LIS right now is the big issue in higher public education everywhere: the corporatization of education. Over the past 30 years more and more tax dollars that are supposed to go to education have been diverted into the bank accounts of private companies. Jobs have been privatized and given to private bidders. More and more administrators are from the corporate realm, not academia. The ideology they bring to the job requires that university departments show a profit, or bring in more grant money, or garner publicity for research that is then given away to businesses for free. Many LIS schools have responded to this cultural change by de-emphasizing library education and emphasizing information science, especially in the area of organizing information for private corporations.

Education should not be about the bottom line. And it does not have to be.

We in LIS, and across the academy, need to fight back against the education-for-profit model that is sucking the life out of education– that is trying to tailor education to the needs of corporations rather than the needs of people. Of course this would have an impact on jobs after MLIS. Public librarian jobs should be highly-paid State jobs. These jobs should not be cut just at the time when more people need access to information and service that libraries provide. Library utilization increases in times of recession and depression. Academic librarians and institutional archivists aid life-saving research and preserve culture. They cannot be cut without negative impacts on science and humanities: benefits will go undiscovered; culture will be lost. Some services have intrinsic value that cannot be measured on a spreadsheet.

If you are in a LIS school, fight back against budget cuts. If you are faculty, organize or join a union. Are you a working librarian? Organize and fight cuts that affect your patrons; get them involved. Societies and cultures change all the time — we can affect that change. And we must affect that change if we are to have the greater say, as library and information professionals, in what information and services are available in the future. If we don’t, everything will only be measured by how it benefits some business’ bottom line.

NF: Anything else you’d like to say to library-land?

LC: We go to LIS schools to learn how to shepherd and preserve information and entertainment in its many forms. The thing we have to remember is that besides living on our shelves and in our computers, information lives in a larger environment that surrounds our libraries and archives. Just as we try to control the internal library environment–adjusting temperature, humidity, and light–we need to try to shape the cultural and economic environment that information lives in; to shape the cultural and economic environment that we study and work in. We want to create an environment more hospitable to information and culture, to the people we serve, to the people with whom we work. Some of that work must take place in our schools and libraries; some of it must take place outside.


Are you interested in being profiled in “Profiles in Awesome” or know someone you’d like to see here? Have a good idea for a question to ask? Email me at nicolibrarian{at} gmail {dot}com.


Written by nicolibrarian

April 15, 2010 at 6:54 am

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